Soviet nostalgia becomes display of Russian military might

May 11th, 2008 - 9:54 am ICT by admin  

By Alissa de Carbonnel
Moscow, May 11 (DPA) Russia presented a heady show that it could defend itself in a full-blown military parade that drew smiles from World War II veterans, cheers from the public and foul language from a few irate drivers in the capital. Tanks, ballistic missiles and heavy artillery rolled through Red Square for the first time in 18 years Friday, reviving one of the country’s most-loved holidays.

Victory Day, celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany, is also a reminder of the near 14 million Soviet troops who died, a sacrifice Russians often feel forgotten in Western history.

“We fought and won to bring peace to the world today. You see only weapons, but without them, today wouldn’t be anything. The USSR, err, Russia wants to show how it can defend peace in the world,” one World War II veteran Alexander, 86, said mixing past and present names.

Vladimir Putin personally ordered the parade, which was held a day after he stepped down as president, in the culmination of his eight-year drive to reassert Russia’s place in the world.

The popular leader is credited with having done just that for what is now Russia’s $1.3 trillion economy and the display Friday was a deliberate move to wipe out the humiliating memory of the country’s first struggles after the Soviet collapse.

Even if this means a paradoxical glorification of power, inextricable from the siege mentality that if not for Russia’s arms, the West would have eagerly raped it of everything.

The monumental parade also smoothes Putin’s recent transition of power to Dmitry Medvedev, who stood beside his mentor to view the show Friday.

Some 8,000 soldiers’ holding the hammer-and-sickle standards of the former USSR, rumbled salutes to Defence Minister Anatoly Serdukov as he rode past their ranks standing in a cadillac-inspired Soviet Zil limousine.

The crowd of World War II veterans, their lapels sagging with metals, then moved their lips to other lyrics as the troops in-toned the new verses of Russia’s national anthem, restored by Putin to the old-Soviet melody.

But the brass music was swiftly drowned out by rows of tanks grinding over the cobblestones and spitting exhausts.

The military pomp raised eyebrows in the West at a time when Russia is courting open conflict with its post-Soviet neighbour Georgia, which the US backs in its bid to join NATO.

Earlier Putin said the celebration was not “sabre-rattling”, but a “demonstration of our growing defence capability.

“We are able to protect our people, our citizens, our state, our wealth - which is not inconsiderable,” Putin said, supported by his successor Medvedev who warned against irresponsible ambitions” adding Russia should do everything to see the tragedies of World War II were not repeated.

But veterans and spectators seemed to view the proceedings as a national holiday, shrugging off foreign concerns.

Asked whether there was sense that others felt threatened by Friday’s display, Alexander said curtly, “No, it’s their problem”. His neighbour Victor Tarasov, 85, added, “No, it’s their stupidity”.

They and other veterans said simply that the parade brought them pride and hope, and saw it as emblematic of domestic changes that have been trumpeted during Medvedev’s campaign.

Medvedev’s first decree as president was to order state housing for all World War II veterans.

“We, soldiers were badly cared for, forgotten … now things are getting better. Medvedev is young. He has hope and patriotism that is our hope for the future,” said Alexander, 83, who fought three years in World War II.

The next generation of cadets shivered, as they looked skywards at three helicopters dangling a weighted Russian tri-colour that cut through the morning air.

Watching the dizzying aerial display of over 30 warplanes, the cadets of Moscow’s Suvorovsky Military Institute beamed with confidence and without fear of threat.

“It’s important the military shows that it has retained its strength … We could be threatened, but now I don’t think there is anything,” 15-year-old Alexei said shoulders up around his ears.

Nevertheless, Alexei said he hoped to join the four-month training for the parade next year. He and his classmates were distracted as the stars of the show arrived: Topol-M ballistic missiles that looked as if they could level a city.

But military analysts were not as easily impressed, pointing out that the parade featured only the empty casing as their 45-tonne weight of the missile could hardly be driven through Moscow’s inner streets.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, called the show of force “immaterial”, saying most of the equipment was outdated or in poor condition despite the recent generous cash flowing to the armed forces.

The costs of the parade Friday were said to be enormous, with special planes dispatched to seed clouds against rain, and Moscow city authorities anticipated to be $60 million in street repairs alone.

Over 70 percent of Russians polled by the independent Levada Centre, however, were enthusiastic over the revamping of the parade. They could watch clips of the goose-stepping soldiers on state television all-day Friday in-between re-runs of Soviet World War II films.

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